The words are never rambling.
If anything, when Bobby Watson speaks, Lunas listen. In the aftermath of a 30-7 semifinal win over a dangerous, previously unbeaten Konawaena squad, unbeaten Lahainaluna (7-0) gathered behind the makai end zone of Skippa Diaz Stadium and took a knee.
Watson didn’t yell. He just had that look. That tone. Nobody was safe. As co-head coach Dean Rickard took interviews across the field and Blare Sylva-Viela (100 rushing yards, TD, interception) faced the post-game, on-air interview, Watson shared his thoughts efficiently. Economically.
“You think that’s successful? You think you’re going to be somebody good like that? Don’t look at this is a nice win. This is a lucky win. We got lucky,” the Lunas co-head coach and defensive coordinator said to the team.
Between the 279 rushing yards — which surprised Rickard — and mind-blowing defense that came up with seven interceptions and three fumble recoveries, there probably weren’t many nits to pick for most coaching staffs. The Lunas aren’t most coaching staffs.
The Lunas ran the ball well, but were stonewalled several times inside the 5-yard line by a proud Wildcats defensive front.
“All we need is two yards. One yard. That’s all I want you to give me,” Watson said.
He was adamant about it, rightfully so. Every great team knows how to close a deal. Sometimes they get by without perfection. Sometimes, no.
“We got lucky. They were this close to getting on the board and exploding,” Watson said.
True, Konawaena QB Keoki Alani showed a masterful touch on the deep ball, dropping in heavenly spirals over the top of the Lunas on two long completions. The rest of the time, it was up-for-grabs time as the sophomore connected with his talented receiver corps on out routes and crossing patterns. Two of his seven interceptions were deflected. The rest, simply outrageous effort and athleticism by the Luna secondary against taller receivers.
Two of those picks were by Ian-Jay Cabanilla, who also lined up as a wildcat QB and scored on a 10-yard run. He’s athletic enough to dunk on a basketball rim.
“Tennis ball,” Cabanilla said. “Just a tennis ball.”
Cabanilla and his ballhawking teammates were in peak form.
“We had some adjustments. We had trouble watching all the hitches and all the down low routes, but we adjusted and stopped them in the second half,” Cabanilla said. “I feel great. I don’t feel that much (about the interceptions), but it really helped my team out a lot.”
Whatever they didn’t have in terms of sheer height and length, the Lunas made up for with angles and timing. Speed and hops.
“You don’t need to look too far. We’re not physically intimidating. You can’t take away heart and instincts, and that’s what we’re very glad our kids do,” Rickard said. “They have that, we’re not going to give up mentality. They’ll fight for the ball, do whatever it takes despite their size or limited physical capabilities. They’ll play as big as any big player on the field. That’s all we ask for of any of our players and we’ve been doing that for years.”
Konawaena’s four-wide offense has been a staple since Brad Uemoto became head coach, and their runs deep into the D-II state tournament were a regular feature — fun as action movie, just not winning the Oscar thanks to Lahainaluna. In 2017, the Lunas and Wildcats provided fans statewide with an incredible 75-69, seven-overtime thriller at Aloha Stadium, won by the team in red from West Maui.
Cabanilla noted the value of studying video footage, though at least one assistant coach maintains that the players actually don’t see a lot of film. They just read and react like they do.
“They get a ‘cheat sheet’. Coach Bobby breaks the film down and we give the kids the papers,” defensive backs coach Kenui Watson, son of Bobby, said. “We’re like Konawaena. We’ve got a lot of kids who are young.”
The video exposure is key for teams on different islands, and especially with shortened seasons in 2021. Big Island Interscholastic Federation games were often streamed on a local station, with game footage accessible to anyone willing to subscribe.
Luna games? They were much more difficult to find online. That’s why Konawaena coach Brad Uemoto was slightly frustrated at the lack of video to examine. Luna games simply were not accessible except to a personal Facebook page or two.
“We didn’t have online (video), so people would do Facebook Live or something,” Kenui Watson said. “We subscribed to the app for games at Big Island stadiums.”
More than that, perhaps, was Lahainaluna’s familiarity and past scouting of Konawaena. Rickard has watched the ’17 classic between Lahainaluna and Konawaena almost a million times, or something close to that.
“I’ve seen it too much times. At least 10 times, bits and pieces,” he said. “One thing we do keep for ourselves is all our old films that we’ve played with Konawaena. We utilize as much film as we can whether it’s recent films or from 2017. We really looked at our film from that championship game. They have pretty much the same coaching staff and, of course, they’re going to change things here and there, but the tendencies remain the same, as are we. Everybody knows what we’re going to do, yet you have to make sure to prepare for whatever team you’re going to be facing.”
Discipline is always part of the order. The Lunas had just one penalty for five yards in the first half. Then came the second half and three 15-yarders, including one for unsportsmanlike conduct. Everyone gets partake of the special prize when the Lunas get back to practice.
“The whole team pays. We got these things called ‘205s.’ They’ll start at one end of the field, sprint every five yards, drop, all the way to the other end, come back, same thing. Every five yards, they drop,” Rickard said. “And if if it’s really flagrant, we have the ‘205 Special,’ which is you go bear crawl every five yards, drop on your stomach, then the standing drop coming back 100 yards. Those aren’t punishments. Those are conditioning.”
They were the last four Division II state champions from 2016 to ’19. Now, Lahainaluna is in position to win its first D-I state crown. The same is true of ‘Iolani, which later blanked a robust Aiea squad 21-0.
After the game, the Lunas boarded a flight back to the Valley Isle. Some coaches stayed to scout the later game. ‘Iolani, particularly its ground attack and defense, was stout.
“Am I happy with the outcome as far as being able to play next week? Of course, we’re happy with the outcome, but is there work to be done? Of course, there’s work to be done,” Rickard said. “If we’re not always trying to push to always get better and improve, then it’s time to step away from coaching.
“That’s what we try to teach our kids, that each and every time you take the field, you’re going to try and improve every single play, or if you face adversity, you pick yourself up, come back and face it head on and see what happens.”